Nuala Kennedy:
gigging in Gaelic

Nuala Kennedy doesn't get a lot of sleep.

Nuala, a native of Dundalk on the northeast coast of Ireland, is a music industry all on her own. Now living in Edinburgh, Scotland (where she moved to complete a degree in ceramics and art history), she is a talented Gaelic singer and flute and whistle player. She performs solo, she is a member of the bands Fine Friday, Harem Scarem and Anam, and she fills her remaining waking hours with numerous other projects, including her recent work with the Chris Norman Ensemble, Gordon Gunn, and Troy MacGillivray and Andrea Beaton.

During a rare breather in the Festival Club's green room at the international Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the elfin beauty with a ready smile was eager to discuss her passion for Gaelic -- and the challenge of singing in both the Irish and Scottish varieties.

"They blend together sometimes," Nuala, fresh from a performance in North River, said. "Sometimes, it's difficult not to mispronounce words that, even if they're spelled the same, are pronounced differently."

Nuala said she is more fluent in Scots-Gaelic than her native Irish, mostly because she has been studying the Scots variant diligently over the past several years. "Scottish Gaelic is very close to Irish," she said. "I'm sure it would come back if I were living in Ireland again."

In fact, it was her love for the Irish language that inspired Nuala to learn the Scottish.

"I really missed it," she said. "I had a great love for the Irish when I was in Ireland. And when I first moved to Scotland, my mother used to write to me in Irish." Ironically, Nuala explained, neither of her parents are fluent speakers in Irish, but her mother needed to learn it as part of her certification as a primary school teacher. "A family friend was teaching my mom around the house, so it was always around when I was a kid," Nuala said. "I loved it, but I was never really fluent."

Some mastery of the Irish language is now required in all mainstream Irish schools, a far cry from the days when the British government had banned it entirely. "Some people really resent it," Nuala said, "because it's essentially being forced on them. But the language is very much alive in Ireland because of it. ... Everyone in Ireland recognizes the Irish as their national heritage. That's not as common a feeling in Scotland."

But now, she said, Scotland is making great progress in restoring its own Gaelic traditions. Four years ago, she signed up for a "brilliant" correspondence course from Skye that, by telephone, "takes you from zero to fluency in a year." Nuala followed that up with a year of study in Inverness, and she was soon speaking -- and singing -- Scots-Gaelic like a native.

Nuala didn't even consider learning songs phonetically, which she believes waters down the beauty of the words.

"When I'm singing a song, I'm thinking about its meaning," she explained. "If you're going to sing in another language, you should make an effort to learn to speak it. It's good for your soul."

Nuala said she hasn't -- yet -- written any songs in the language, although she has penned some poetry and short stories.

Of either variety, Gaelic is a gorgeous language that sounds lyrical even when spoken.

"That's one of the beautiful things about it," Nuala said. "It's easier to be concise and clear in English, but I love the flexibility of Irish. It's such a poetic language."

Of course, it's also one that many audiences don't understand -- but that's not usually the case in Cape Breton, where Gaelic is a thriving language. "It's always so much better to sing to an audience that can actually understand what you're singing while you're singing it," she said. "But people can still feel the emotion of the song. It still has some resonance."

Gaelic singing is a special niche in the Celtic music world, and Nuala is making it her own. "Up 'til recently, I was definitely more of a flute player," she said. "I always want to be doing both. I love to play tunes, and there will probably not be a day when I do a concert without tunes in it. But it's such a different thing to come over as a singer."

"I love playing here," she added. "The whole atmosphere here is so fantastic." In North River, where she had performed earlier that evening, the audience not only understood her Gaelic songs, they were able to sing along.

Nuala has performed at Celtic Colours twice before, in 2002 with Fine Friday and in 2004 with Harem Scarem. "This year has been different," she said with a laugh. "I'm a lone ranger."

For someone with so many projects going at once, a period of solo work might seem a blessing. But Nuala said she doesn't have any trouble keeping lines drawn between various aspects of her work. "You just have to keep them separate in your head," she said. "And I don't want to get to the point that I'm doing too many things. But I divide them into blocks of time, and that helps to keep it fresh."

A career in music is a blessing, but it can also be a chore, she admitted. "Sometimes it does feel like work. It is my job, after all, but I love it. But I know I'm in a very special place to be able to do this, and to be able to continue to do this. But after two weeks on tour and you're doing another sound check, you realize it's no holiday."

Not usually, at least. She changes her mind after considering her time in Cape Breton.

"I fit in here," she said. "The music I play fits right into the groove here. It feels natural."

by Tom Knapp
22 October 2005

[ visit Nuala's website ]